“Victims and their families have been fighting for recognition and justice for decades and great victories were achieved when the Victorian Inquiry and the Royal Commission were established. But ‘for what’ they say.”

Judy Courtin

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is after 2 years, at its halfway mark. The Commission is focused on systemic issues and institutional responses to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse. Public hearings have been the main way the Commission does its work.
Although the Royal Commission’s brief is overwhelming, the hearings have been revelatory and harrowing. The Commission has heard evidence of horrific and horrendous systematic and institutional physical and sexual abuse and rape of children within religious, faith and welfare organisations.
Evidence to the Commission shows that both low and high level officials in institutions supposed to protect children actively conspired to abuse and rape them. In many cases these were highly sophisticated, organized institutional crimes committed against children.
 The Commission has exposed the breadth of institutional settings – churches, schools, hospitals, out-of-homecare, children’s homes, juvenile centres, NFPs and charities- where abuse occurred.

Hearings have demonstrated that the impact of the abuse has been profound and multi-dimensional and the damage compounds year after year and that suicides and premature deaths of victims are widespread. Evidence presented to the Commission shows that the impact and trauma resulting from the abuse is intergenerational, affecting victims, extended family, partners, wives, husbands, children, parents and grandchildren.

But two years into the Royal Commission, progress has been slow for victims, who still suffer at the hands of the churches and institutions responsible for the abuse, as well as the legal system and the inaction of Federal and State Governments.
Lawyer and campaigner Judy Courtin argues that many survivors who have been fighting for justice for decades, particularly for adequate financial compensation and support, have had enough.

Worn out by having to fight institutions and government, and despite taking serious personal risks by giving evidence in public hearings to the Commission, Courtin argues that many victims and families have had their hopes for justice dashed by the failure of the Federal Government and the responsible institutions.

Courtin writes that many continue to be victimized by the system and by institutions and are shattered that justice has not prevailed. 

There is also growing concern that recommendations of the Royal Commission are likely to be cast aside, particularly where they are costly, difficult to implement and/or where they are too much of a threat to powerful institutions, such as the churches, Governments, government agencies and Police. 
Earlier this year the Abbott Government bluntly rejected the Royal Commission’s call for a National Redress scheme. The Abbott Government scoffed at suggestions that it be the ‘funder of last resort’ for people abused within and by institutions that no longer exist.

Judy Courtin writes that the Federal Government not only showed contempt for child victims of sexual abuse, but its response further abuses victims of child sexual abuse. Further, she argues that the Abbott Government abandoned the 65,000 survivors of child sex crimes who now have to fight the institutions where the crimes occurred.

Evidence to the Commission shows that officials in institutions supposed to protect children actively conspired to abuse and rape them, however, more than 80% of alleged clergy sex offenders have evaded criminal accountability.

Many of the victims gave evidence that they tried to tell people in authority of the horrors they suffered, only to be severely punished, dismissed or forgotten.

Victims have provided evidence implicating influential Church, religious and community leaders in cover up of abuse. Crimes were actively denied, ignored or covered up. 

Cover ups were reliant on the abuse of institutional power. In addition, authoritarian leadership and toxic power structures and cultures, enabled and extended sexual abuse and its subsequent cover up. Evidence presented to the Commission showed that perpetrators often had a profound sense of entitlement and that the authoritarian nature of the institutions and their cultures aided the abuse and cover up.

The hierarchy and leadership of many churches, faith groups and institutions, as well as public authorities, knew about the abuse as far back as the 1950’s and 1960’s, but acted to protect their own interests, image and credibility at the expense of victims. The response by most institutions to victims has been hostile, dismissive, legalistic and victim blaming.

Judy Courtin argues that survivors want the whole truth to come out and that should go further than what the offenders themselves did, arguing that:

‘It was much more important to have accountability of the hierarchy on the concealing than accountability of the offender’

Courtin believes the lack of convictions for concealing abuse means church figures and leaders enjoy impunity. Her research shows that there has not been one conviction for the crime of concealing sex crimes and a serious lack of accountability and impunity by the institutions involved. She writes:

The only legal entity for the church that can be sued is a property trust, the trustees of which cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of the offending priests. Victims do not have access to the civil courts and instead have had little choice but to return to the very church that protected their offenders. Based on my research, these hostile and legalistic processes deliver very little. Victims feel silenced by these processes and are forced to sign a deed of release preventing them from ever suing the church or any of its clergy.

The Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide  has been charged with the concealment of an allegation of child sexual abuse by a convicted paedophile priest as part of NSW Police investigations arising from the NSW Inquiry.

Cardinal George Pell (formerly Australia’s highest rank Catholic leader) has been accused of knowing of serious sexual abuse and rape and doing nothing; of trying to bribe victims to keep quiet; of ignoring or dismissing complaints; of colluding to protect perpetrators; and of transferring known offenders.

Evidence presented at the hearings has shown that Government departments, police, welfare authorities, community leaders, public agencies, NFPs and ordinary citizens also did nothing or were complicit in the abuse.  The Commission hearings have shown that those who experienced child sexual abuse in institutions were ignored and disbelieved by the adults and institutions who were supposed to protect them.
Judy Courtin has written that some Police investigations tried to silence and discredit victims.

Many charitable organizations made it possible for powerful and influential people to engage in and conceal highly sophisticated and organized criminal activities. Victims and victim groups have made a serious critique of behaviour by churches, faith and charitable organizations who benefit from significant public funding and support and in some cases tax exempt status.

Some victims and victim groups have called for churches and charities involved in abuse to have their tax free status withdrawn.

Given the power and influence of the churches, it is unlikely that such a recommendation would be supported by Governments.

The Royal Commission has recently published a Research Paper suggesting that organizations be held criminally responsible when their negligence results in harms to children. 
The Paper proposes the creation of offences of criminal negligence to hold organisations criminally responsible for the creation and/or management of risk of harm and for their response when harm is done to a child.  This would require state governments to create new offences to cover such conduct.
It is difficult to see State Governments supporting this recommendation and no doubt charities and NFPs, as well as corporate and business lobbies who see the risks this recommendation presents to corporations and business involved in profiting from the care and welfare of children, would mobilise to oppose such a recommendation.

In recent years there has been a plethora of State and now Federal Inquiries into child sexual abuse and child protection. The Royal Commission commissioned a study of the extent to which recommendations from those inquiries had been implemented which found that less than half (48%) of the recommendations had been implemented fully.

 In light of the implementation gap concerning the failure of State and Federal governments to take up recommendations from previous Inquiries and Commissions, there are serious questions as to whether the Royal Commission’s work will make a significant difference for victims or for children.
The signs so far are not overly encouraging.